Police review board not seeking additional powers

Apr. 07, 2014 @ 09:30 PM

City officials should try harder to publicize their willingness to investigate complaints about the Durham Police Department, says a board that monitors the work of the department’s internal affairs unit.

But the Civilian Police Review Board on Monday stopped well short of asking City Manager Tom Bonfield for a vastly increased role in the process of disciplining officers, as groups critical of police want.

Members on that point actually voted down a suggestion that they need clearer authority to relay to the manager their opinions about specific cases and disciplinary decisions.

They agreed they already have that authority. They haven’t used it much because, board Chairman DeWarren Langley said, they “haven’t had a case that really compels it.”

Langley and his colleagues weighed in as a separate advisory group, the Human Relations Commission, hones its own package of recommendations on police issues to the City Council.

Its members have signaled that they will urge elected officials to give the Civilian Police Review Board broader powers to investigate complaints about officers’ conduct.

Those complaints now go to the Police Department’s internal-affairs unit, which investigates them and reports findings to Police Chief Jose Lopez and other commanders.

The review board enters the picture if a person who filed a complaint against an officer is unhappy with the outcome of an investigation. But rather than investigating from scratch, the board checks to make sure internal-affairs detectives followed procedure in conducting their probe.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Kim Rehberg noted that the internal-affairs unit’s role is also limited.

While detectives have the job of finding out whether a complaint is valid, the department’s “chain of command” is ultimately responsible for deciding on disciplinary action.

“Internal affairs doesn’t mete out discipline,” Rehberg told the review board. “There are multiple decisions made. Internal affairs makes a decision about the disposition of the investigation. Then, if you have a sustained finding, do you discipline the officer? And third, if you discipline, at what level?”

Ultimately, state law assigns the city manager full control over the hiring, firing and discipline of most city employees.

One group critical of the Police Department, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, has argued that the Civilian Police Review Board needs the power to overrule the decisions the manager and police commanders make about disciplinary matters.

A coalition lawyer, Ian Mance, attended Monday’s meeting and said afterward that the discussion had illustrated why it’s important to have a review board “independent of the city manager’s office.”

The board now “provides no meaningful oversight [and] has no authority,” he said. “Its unwillingess to grant people hearings provides cover to the police to claim all is well within the department.”

He also took issue with Rehberg’s participation in Monday’s meeting, arguing that she as “the manager’s attorney” had helped steer the group away from firmer action.

That misstated her place in the city government’s chain of command, as Rehberg and other city attorneys don’t work for the manager. They instead answer directly to the City Council, which hires their boss and the manager separately.